The Worst and Best Thanksgiving

What began as the worst Thanksgiving of my life became what might have been the best.

It was four years ago, 2012. You remember, the end of the world. A year earlier I’d written a song about it with the hook, “you can stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, 2012’s just around the corner and the shit’s about to fly, don’t get no second chances, might as well enjoy the ride, before ya stick your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye …” Yeah, that year.

We had a lot planned for November. It was my wife’s 50th birthday on Nov. 8. We weren’t even thinking about Thanksgiving yet. We were gonna have a big party. Our daughter Samantha and her husband Eric had flown into town. So had my brother Steve. I’d secretly put together a video of 50 people delivering happy birthday messages to Jane, some of them were folks she hadn’t seen in decades – her uncle in England, childhood friends and so forth. This was going to be her surprise gift before everything went to hell and we nearly lost our son.

The day before her birthday, Joe started running a high fever. Then he started coughing. Then he was throwing up something ugly and black. I found a huge wound on the back of his shoulder that had been the size of a small pimple the day before. Staph infection. It put him in the hospital for an entire month, Scottish Rite. At one point, the docs had to induce coma for a couple of days, partly because my boy couldn’t relax enough to be probably intubated. Truly wretched times.

Every night, one of us slept in his room (Mom, typically), and the other one had to find different arrangements. Usually, this meant getting your name on “the list” for a parent’s guest room at Scottish Rite. These were, basically, little rooms about the size of a walk-in closet with a bed. There was competition for these rooms because there always seemed to be more dads than there were rooms available. So, I spent some nights sleeping out in our van.

The night before Thanksgiving, though, was kind of cold and I decided to “spoil” myself by staying in a nearby hotel. On my way to the hotel, I was rear-ended. Damaged the back of our handicap-accessible van (our only means of road travel with Joe). I was already a raw nerve, so when I got out of the van to talk to the guy who hit me, I was not in a good mood. Didn’t matter that the dude was the size of a defensive end, I was in his face. To his grace and credit, he was calm and apologetic and hundreds of miles from home. We exchanged information and I went to my hotel room and probably cried, weeks of helpless frustration pouring out in curses and other ugly lamentations.

Hope and gratitude were in short supply the next morning. But I got to Scottish Rite early for another day in the house of healing, where the hospital staff had big things planned for their depressed and depressing charges. Good, kind people (businesses, but businesses are made up of people) had donated a bunch of roasted turkeys and all of the rest, and there was going to be a Thanksgiving dinner on our floor. Then came the good news that Joe was getting moved from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to a regular room. There’s your hope, running point for the gratitude to come.

Then our wonderful, dearest and loveliest of friends, Tommy and Terri, on their way back home to Sautee Nacoochee from South Georgia, stopped by for a visit. T and T are like our siblings from other mothers. They’ve known Joe since he was a tyke and always have treated him with love and respect and they’d been missing him, so here they were, and here they stayed, because Tommy got pressed into service.

My overriding memory of that Thanksgiving is of Tommy skillfully tearing into those turkeys, using whatever tools were available – plastic knives and forks mainly, slicing the birds, prepping and presenting them for the tired, hungry hordes. We went through a dozen of those birds. Slicing, cutting, occasionally ripping, little bits of meat flying like sawdust. Nurses brought in trays and pots and buckets of food, jugs of tea. We feasted together in Joe’s new hospital room.

I’ve always loved this ridiculous holiday marked by overindulgence and sappy emotions, mostly because of whom it brought together – mom and dad and brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles and aunts by the dozen, small armies of mostly Italians. Family. Thanksgiving. Let it be.

I’ve got 50 memories of 50 meals, of arguing over the drumstick, of stuffed mushrooms and stuffed tummies, of dark beer and football games, of family drama, of stories from my father about how he had managed to take down the monster turkey we were now consuming (a bird from some grocery store freezer, but he always claimed it had been stalking the woods near our house, six-feet tall at the shoulders). Lots of Thanksgiving memories, grainy, lovely, comfortable.

But that year at Scottish Rite, the least comfortable Thanksgiving, with my son on the mend after lurching toward the edge, my wife and I hallow-eyed but happy, loving friends pitching in around a hospital break-room for a hasty feast … it’s a scene I’d rather not repeat, but one I never want to forget. It was the most heartfelt giving and sharing of thanks I can remember.

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